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THE EFFICACY OF PRAYER, FOR OBTAINING THE HOLY SPIRIT.
How much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”—Luke xi. 13.
IN discoursing on these words, I proposed,
First, To endeavour to shew what is comprehended in the gift of the Holy Spirit mentioned in my text, and how great a blessing and benefit it is.
Secondly, What kind of asking is here required.
Thirdly, To confirm and illustrate the truth of this proposition, That God is very ready to give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him.
Fourthly, To remove a considerable objection, to which this discourse may seem liable. And,
Fifthly, To make some practical application of it to ourselves.
The three former of these I have dispatched, and shall now proceed to the
Fourth thing which I propounded, which was, to remove an objection to which this discourse may seem liable; the removal whereof will conduce very much to the clearing this argument, about which men seem to have had very confused apprehensions. The objection is this—That none can ask the Spirit aright, but they that have the Spirit; and if this be so, then this large declaration of God’s goodness and readiness to bestow the Holy Spirit upon them that ask him comes to nothing; for a promise signifies nothing, which confers a benefit on a person upon 118a condition impossible by him to be performed, unless he first have the benefit which is promised; and, to use a familiar comparison, if this were the meaning of it, it would be like a father’s jesting with his child, when he is fallen, and bidding him come to him, and he will help him up. Now if God thus promise his Holy Spirit to them that ask it, with this reservation, that no man can ask God’s Spirit unless he have it, then this promise amounts to nothing.
And that no man can ask God’s Spirit without his Spirit, (that is, put up any prayer that is acceptable to God, without the assistance of God’s Spirit,) seems to me in effect generally granted by those who assert, that no unregenerate man can pray to God aright, or perform any other duties of religion in an acceptable manner; for to be unregenerate, and not to have the Spirit of God, are equivalent expressions in Scripture; St. Paul having expressly told us, that “if any man have not the Spirit of God, he is none of his;” that is, does not belong to him, as every regenerate person most certainly does.
Besides that the Scripture tells us, that all the prayers, and all the sacrifices, that is, all religious duties performed by a wicked man, are “an abomination to the Lord:”” because no prayer can be acceptable to God, which does not proceed from sincerity, and is not put up to God in faith; now sincerity and faith are graces proper to the regenerate.
So that the objection in short is this: How can any man that hath not the Spirit of God, ask any thing of God aright, that is, sincerely, fervently, and in faith?” And if without God’s Spirit, no man can beg his Spirit of him, what then signifies this promise, 119that God will “give his Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”
For the satisfaction of this objection, I shall lay down these propositions, which, if they be well considered, will conduce very much to the clearing of this matter:”
First, That in the interpretation of promises and conditions annexed to them, we ought above all things to take heed, that we do not so interpret either the promise, or condition, as to make the promise void, and of none effect; for this cannot be done without a notorious affront to him that made the promise, who is presumed, if he were serious and sincere, to have intended a real benefit and advantage by his promise. And this rule holds not only in the interpretation of promises, but of all covenants and contracts; in omni interpretatione pactorum, contractuum et promissorum, illud praecipue cavendum, ne in vanum recidant; “in the interpretation of all covenants, and contracts, and promises, we are principally to take care, that we do not so interpret them as to make them signify nothing:”” and if this hold among men, much more ought we to be cautious and tender of interpreting the promises of God to a vain and trifling sense; for we cannot dishonour the goodness and veracity of God more, than to suppose that he mocks men by his promises, and makes a show and offer of a benefit, when he really intends none; for all such proceedings as would be unbecoming the sincerity and integrity of a good man, are to be removed at the greatest distance from God, “all whose ways are faithfulness and truth, who is not as man, that he should lie, or as the^son of man, that he should repent.”
Secondly, I do not see but if this were the true 120sense and meaning of these words of our Saviour, that though God will “give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him,” yet none but those who have the Spirit of God can ask it of him; I say, I do not see but that it must necessarily be granted, that such a promise as this amounts to nothing; because, according to this interpretation of it, the benefit promised would be suspended upon a condition which no man can perform, unless he be first par taker of the benefit; which is, in plain English, to promise to bestow a thing upon a man on this condition, that he first have the thing which I promise to bestow upon him, which signifies just no thing, but is lusory and trifling, and consequently not to be imagined to be the meaning of a Divine promise. There cannot be a greater absurdity in divinity, than to put such a sense upon the promises of God, as does plainly evacuate them, and make them of none effect. This be far from us, as the apostle says upon another occasion; “Shall we make the promises of God of none effect?” God forbid!”
And whereas it is commonly said, that the meaning of our Saviour’s promise here in the text is this, that those who have the Spirit of God already, if they ask a greater measure of it, he will not deny it to them; though this be true in itself, that God will not deny greater degrees of the grace and assistance of his Holy Spirit to them that beg it of him, and may by a just parity of reason be inferred from this promise, or contained in it as a part of the meaning of it, yet to make this the whole meaning of it, seems to be a very forced and unreasonable limitation of these general words, where in this promise is conceived; for if we look back to the 10th verse, the words are as general as could well be devised; “Every one that asketh, receiveth; 121and every one that seeketh, findeth;” and containing matter of favour and benefit, they ought in reason to be extended and enlarged as far as may be, but by no means to be restrained without evident reason. Now so far is there from being any evident reason for this, that there seems to me to be an invincible one to the contrary, why they should not be thus restrained, and that is this: if this promise of our Saviour’s were thus to be limited; then all other promises of the like nature, ought in like manner to be interpreted; which cannot be with out manifest violence and self-contradiction. I will instance in two other promises of the like nature and importance. The first is, Ezek. xxxvi. 25-27. God there promises to reclaim them from their idolatry, by convincing them of their sin, and giving them repentance, and his Holy Spirit to regenerate and sanctify them; “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you, and 1 will take the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.” Now that which 1 would argue from hence is this: Those idolatrous Jews to whom God promises that he will cleanse them, and give them a new heart, and a new spirit, and put his Spirit into them, were as yet unregenerate, and consequently, as the objection supposeth, could not pray for these blessings, nor ask them of God in a right manner; and yet he suspends these blessings upon the condition of their praying for them, as is evident, (ver. 37. “Thus 122saith the Lord God, I will yet be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them.” From whence it is plain, that God would not bestow these blessings upon them, without their seeking to him for them. Now if these persons, because they were unregenerate, could not pray _for these things, then these promises signified nothing; which is by no means to be imagined of the promises of God. So that it is clear, that the Spirit of God is here promised to the unregenerate, upon condition of their suing to God for it; and if so, there can be no reason to restrain the promise in the text, which is of the same nature, and made upon the same condition, to the regenerate only.
The other text I shall mention, is James i. 5. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not: and it shall be given him.” In these words St. James, under the notion of wisdom, (as I told you before) doth comprehend all the fruits of the Spirit, which are the effect of regeneration and sanctification. Now this promise being conceived in so general terms, cannot without manifest force and violence be restrained only to the regenerate; for then the promise should not have run thus; “If any man lack wisdom;” but, “If any man have this spiritual wisdom already, let him ask more of God.” You see then what reason there is, why this promise of God’s Holy Spirit should be understood in the latitude wherein it is expressed, and not restrained to the regenerate only.
Thirdly, If, by having the Spirit of God, be understood the general and common influence of God’s Spirit upon the minds of men, whereby they are quickened and excited to their duty; I grant that 123no man that hath not the Spirit of God in this sense can pray to God, or acceptably perform any other duty of religion: and this assertion is very agree able to the phrase and language of the Holy Scriptures, which attribute all good motions and actions to the Spirit of God working in us, and assisting us; and in this sense unregenerate men are under the influence of God’s Spirit, or else they could not be said to resist it; but they have not the Spirit of God dwelling in them, which is the most proper sense of having the Spirit of God; in which sense the apostle says, “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his:”” but then it is specially to be noted, that the common and transient operation of God’s Spirit, which is preparatory to conversion and regeneration, and where by God works in men a sense of sin, and some inclination and disposition to goodness, is by our Saviour peculiarly attributed to the Father, as his proper work; in which sense our Saviour says, (John vi. 44.) “No man can come to me, except the Father, which hath sent me, draw him.” (Verse 45.) “Every man therefore that hath heard and learned of the Father, cometh unto me.” Now men are said to learn of the Father, and to be drawn by him, by those preparatory dispositions for the receiving of the Christian religion, which were wrought in men by that natural sense of good and evil, which they have by the law of nature, which is properly the dispensation of the Father, as being the immediate effect of God’s creation, as a late judicious writer hath very well observed, and more largely explained.
Fourthly, But if, by having the Spirit of God, be meant the special effect of regeneration and sanctification, 124and the permanent influence and constant residence of God’s Holy Spirit in good men, then I make no doubt to say, that those who have not the Spirit of God in this sense, may ask his Spirit of him; that is, those who are not yet regenerate and sanctified, may in an acceptable manner pray to God to give them his Holy Spirit, to the purposes of sanctification and perseverance in goodness; and they may ask this of God sincerely, earnestly, and in faith, which are the qualifications of an acceptable prayer. And this I think may be evidently made appear, both from Scripture, and by good consequence from the concessions of all sorts of divines.
I. From Scripture. It is plain that wicked and unregenerate men are commanded and required to pray to this purpose. Not to mention the general commands concerning prayer, which do certainly oblige unregenerate men, I will produce one plain and undeniable instance, (Acts viii. 22, 23.) where St. Peter directs Simon Magus, whom he expressly declares to be in an unregenerate state, to pray to God for the pardon of his great sin, which certainly he would not have done, had he thought an unregenerate man could not pray in an acceptable manner: because his counsel would have been to no purpose: but it is plain that St. Peter was so far from thinking that an unregenerate man could not pray acceptably to God, that he gives this as a reason why he should pray—because he was unregenerate: “Pray to God, if perhaps the thought of thy heart may be forgiven thee: for I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.”
II. This will appear farther by clear consequence, from the concessions of all sorts of divines, and principles granted on all hands.125
1. It is universally granted, that it is a thing very pleasing and acceptable to God, that men should pray to be regenerate and sanctified; so that the matter of this prayer is unquestionably acceptable.
2. It is likewise granted on all hands, that before a man is regenerate and sanctified, he must be made sensible of his evil and sinful state, and of his great need of God’s grace and Spirit, and that God’s Spirit is able to work this change in him, and that it is the will of God that he should be regenerated and sanctified.
3. It is likewise generally granted, that these preparatory works of regeneration, these beginnings of our repentance and returning to God, and all desires and endeavours to that purpose, are acceptable to God.
Now from these concessions it plainly follows, that an unregenerate man may pray to God acceptably for his Holy Spirit, to regenerate and sanctify him. For,
1. The matter of his prayer is very acceptable to God, according to the first concession.
2. The manner of it may be acceptable, because an unregenerate man may pray for this sincerely, with earnestness, and in faith: sincerely, because he may put up this prayer to God out of a true sense of his miserable and sinful state, and his great need of God’s grace and Holy Spirit; and he that is truly sensible of this, cannot dissemble with God, he cannot but be very real and sincere in this request: and this sense of his condition, and the need of what he asks, will make him earnest and importunate: and he may pray in faith, that is, not doubting but that God is able and willing to grant him what he asks, because he may be convinced that 126the Spirit is able to work this change in him, and that this is the will of God, that he should be regenerated and sanctified, according to the second concession.
3. There is no reason to think that God will not accept such a prayer as this; because these preparative works of regeneration, viz. a sense of our sinful state, and of our need of God’s grace and Spirit, and earnest desires and prayers for these, are acceptable to God, according to the third concession. So that now I hope that this objection, which hath been so troublesome to many, is fully satisfied.
As for those texts where it is said, that “the prayers and the sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord,” I shall briefly return this answer: That these texts are not to be understood of a wicked and unregenerate man, simply as such, but as resolved to continue such. And thus Solomon elsewhere in the Proverbs explains what he means by a wicked man, (Prov. xxviii. 9.) “He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination.” So that the wicked man, whose prayer is an abomination, is such an one as is obstinately and resolvedly disobedient, such an one as “turneth away his ear from hearing the law.” And David, much to the same purpose, (Psal. l. 15-17.) “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me. But unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldst take my covenant in thy mouth?” seeing thou hatest instruction, and castest my words behind thee.” Such wicked men as will not be reclaimed, what have they to do to pray, or perform any other act of religion?” nothing that they do, 127whilst such, can be acceptable to God. And to the same sense David says elsewhere, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear my prayer.” God will reject the prayers of the best men, if they retain a secret love to any sin.
If it be yet farther objected, that unregenerate men are out of Christ, in and through whom we are accepted: to this I answer, that those only who are in Christ, are in a state of perfect acceptance with God: but the beginnings of this state, and all tendency towards it, such as is hearty and earnest prayer to God for his Holy Spirit to regenerate and sanctify us, have their degrees of acceptance from their relation to the perfect state whereof they are the beginnings, and toward which they tend: for by the same reason that a regenerate state is accept able to God, all the beginnings of it, and preparations to it, are proportionably acceptable; the degrees of acceptance being proportionable to the difference which is between the beginning of a thing, and the perfection of it.
Having thus endeavoured to clear this truth, I come, in the
Fifth and last place, To make some brief application of it to ourselves.
1. This is a matter of great encouragement to us, under the sense of our own weakness and impotency. When we consider the corruption of our nature, the strength of our lust, and the malice and power of the devil, and compare our weakness with the strength of those mighty enemies of our souls, we are apt to despond in our minds, and our hearts are ready to fail within us; like the people of Israel, when they heard the report of the spies, concerning the strength of the land which they were to conquer, 128and the terror of the inhabitants, they wish themselves almost dead, for fear of death; “Would to God we had died in the land of Egypt; or would to God we had died in the wilderness. Wherefore hath the Lord brought us into this land to fall by the sword?” Were it not better for us to return into Egypt?” (Numb. xiv. 2, &c.) Thus we are apt to be disheartened when we look only to ourselves, and consider the power of our enemies; but when we look beyond ourselves, as Caleb and Joshua did, to that presence and strength of God which were promised to go along with them; if we would but consider those gracious and powerful assistances of God’s Holy Spirit, which are offered to us, and are ready to join with us in this holy warfare of fighting against sin, and subduing and mortifying our lusts, we should then encourage ourselves as they did. “Fear ye riot the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defence is departed from them, the Lord is with us; fear them not.” (Numb. xiv. 9.) If we would but apply ourselves to God for the aids of his grace and Holy Spirit, and make use of that assistance which he offers, we should, as the apostle speaks in another case, (Heb. xi. 34.) “out of weakness be made strong, wax valiant in fight, and be able to put to flight the armies of aliens.” If we would but wisely consider our own strength, how should one chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight! all our spiritual enemies would quail before us, and, as it is said of the Canaanites, (Josh. v. 1.) “their hearts would melt, and there would be no more spirit left in them.” (2 Kings vi. 15.) When Elisha’s servant saw a host compassing the city of Samaria with horses and chariots, he was in great fear and perplexity, and said, 129“Master, what shall we do?” but when, upon Elisha’s prayer, “the Lord had opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountains were full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha:”” then he took heart, and his fears vanished, “because those that were with them were more than they that were against them.” Thus, if our eyes were opened by faith to discern those invisible aids and assistances which stand by us, how should this raise our courage and our confidence, and make us to triumph with the apostle, (Rom. viii. 31.) “If God be for us, who can be against us?” and to rebuke our fears, and the despondency of our spirits, as David does, “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” and why art thou disquieted within me?” trust still in God:”” and to say with him, when “multitudes of enemies compass us about, in the name of the Lord we will destroy them.” (Eph. vi. 10.) When the apostle represents to the Christians what enemies they had to contest withal, we fight not only against flesh and blood; that is, not only against men who persecute us; but against devils, who continually infest and tempt us, against principalities and powers, &c. he encourageth them against all these, by the strength of God; “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.” Thus we should encourage ourselves in God, and animate our resolutions from the consideration of God’s Holy Spirit, that Spirit of might and of power, which God is ready to give to every one of us, to assist us to do whatever he requires of us. And we have no reason to complain of weakness, so long as the strength of God stands by us, and the powerful aids of God’s Spirit are ready to join themselves to us.130
2. Let us earnestly beg of God his Holy Spirit, seeing it is so necessary to us, and God is so ready to bestow this best of gifts upon us. Bread is not more necessary to the support of our natural life, than the Holy Spirit of God is to our spiritual life and strength: and there is no father upon earth more ready to give bread to his children that cry after him, than God is to give his Holy Spirit to those who heartily and earnestly beg it of him. Did we but know how great a gift the Spirit of God is, and how necessary to us, we would not lose such a blessing for want of asking: but we would be importunate with God, and give him no rest; ask, and seek, and knock, and address ourselves to him with all earnestness, and never give over till our desires were granted.
3. Let us take heed of “grieving the Spirit of God, 1 and provoking him to withdraw himself from us. As God is very ready to give his Spirit to us, so we should give the best entertainment we can to so great a guest, lest we give him cause to take away his Holy Spirit from us. And there are two things chiefly which provoke God hereto:”
(1.) If we resist and quench the motions of his Spirit, and be incompliant to the dictates and suggestions of it. We affront the Spirit of God which is given us for our guidance and direction, when we will not be ruled, and governed, and led by it; we thrust the Spirit of God out of his office, and make his presence useless and unnecessary to us; and this causeth him to go away grieved from us.
(2.) If we harbour and entertain any thing that is of a contrary quality and nature to him, and in consistent with him; and of such a nature is every lust and corruption that is cherished in our souls. 131The Spirit of God is the best friend in the world: but as friends have the most tender resentments of unkind usage, so the Spirit of God is of a most tender and delicate sense, and cannot bear unkindness, especially such an unkindness as to take in to him the greatest enemy he hath in the world: for there is no such strong antipathy in nature, as there is between sin and the Holy Spirit of God. The Spirit of God cannot endure to dwell in an impure soul. If we would have the Spirit of God abide with us, we must give no entertainment to any lust, we must banish the love of all sin for ever out of our hearts: for if we harbour any lust in our bosom, it will be to us as Dalilah was to Sampson, it will insensibly bereave us of our strength: the Spirit of God will depart from us, and we shall be like other men.
4. And lastly, God’s readiness to afford the grace and assistance of his Holy Spirit to us, to enable us to the performance of our duty, and the obedience of his laws, makes all wilful sin and disobedience inexcusable. Let us not pretend any longer the impossibility, or insuperable difficulty of our duty, when so powerful an assistance is offered to us. If any man come short of happiness, for want of per forming the conditions of the gospel, it is by his own wilful fault and negligence; because he would not beg God’s grace, and because he would not make use of it. If any man be wicked, and continue in a sinful course, it is not for want of power, but of will, to do better. God is always beforehand with us in the offers of his grace and assistance, and is wanting to no man in that which is necessary to make him good and happy. No man shall be able to plead at the day of judgment want of power to 132have done his duty: for “God will judge the world in righteousness;” and then I am sure he will condemn no man for not having done that which was impossible for him to do. God hath done enough to every man to leave him without excuse. St. Paul tells us, that the blind heathens should have no apology to make for themselves. Next to the being of God, and his goodness and justice, I do as verily believe it, as I do any thing in the world, that no man shall be able to say to God at the great day, “Lord, I would have repented of my sins, and obeyed thy laws, but I wanted power to do it; I was left destitute of the grace which was necessary to the performance and discharge of my duty; I did earnestly beg thy Holy Spirit, but thou didst deny me.” No man shall have the face to say this to God at the great day; every man’s conscience will then acquit God, and lay all the fault upon his own folly and neglect; for then “every mouth shall be stopped, and God shall be justified in his saying, and overcome when we are judged.”133
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